Mobile zeroes in on 5G

29 Feb 2016

Around this time last year, the mobile sector was finally starting to rally around the idea of looking ahead to 5G, even though there wasn’t really a consensus on just what 5G actually was - at least in terms of technology. Previous evolutions to 3G and 4G, while technologically innovative and challenging, were essentially next-gen RAN upgrades with related architectural improvements, which was fairly straightforward compared to the nebulous concept of 5G being kicked around at industry conferences.

However, there was a general understanding that “5G” was far more than a next-generation radio interface - it was that and a collection of other technologies, from existing LTE-A networks and Wi-Fi hotspots to small cells, SDN/NFV and cloud technologies, working together to meet the escalating requirements of mobile data usage. Put another way, the 5G concept was defined less by its technological components and data-throughput capabilities, and more by what kinds of services, applications and devices they would need to be able to support.

That concept was formalized in mid-2015 when the International Telecommunication Union’s ITU-R Working Party defined the overall goals, processes and timeline for 5G development.

Code-named “IMT-2020”, the ITU’s definition of 5G - and its performance parameters - were shaped by the ITU-R Working Party’s understanding of the current trends driving mobile data usage today and where all this is headed over the next five years.

Obviously there are a lot of details to be worked out between now and then - not just within the ITU but among other standards bodies like the 3GPP and IEEE, and industry organizations like the GSM Association and the NGMN Alliance, etc. But from this point on, the mobile sector has a much clearer idea of what 5G should be, and how to get there. A few operators in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere have already started down the road to 5G, although - true to form for the mobile tech sector - it seems not everyone will agree on when they’ve arrived at their destination.

IMT-2020 vision

According to Recommendation ITU-R M.2083-0 (which outlines the framework and objectives of IMT-2020), a key requirement for 5G is extremely low latency and high reliability for apps like cloud services, augmented reality and virtual reality, as well as M2M apps like driverless cars, real-time traffic control optimization, emergency and disaster response, smart grids and healthcare.

5G also must support high user density - not only in terms of crowded areas like shopping malls, stadiums, festivals, traffic jams and emergency scenarios, but also in terms of the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT has its own requirements that go beyond density, such as power consumption, transmission power, and latency requirements - all of which will vary greatly depending on the specific device and application. A report from the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) classifies key IoT apps into two broad categories: (1) massive machine-type communications (M-MTC), which involves huge volumes of low-cost devices and modules for sensor networks, connected home, smart metering, and (2) mission-critical apps like connected cars, industrial automation and health-related apps like remote surgery, where high reliability and low latency are critical.

5G also has to be able to provide “high quality at high mobility” - which is to say, it has to provide the same (or at least similar) quality of experience whether you’re sitting at home or on a high-speed train.

Not unexpectedly, it will also have to support mobile high-definition multimedia, from Ultra HD displays, multi-view HD displays and mobile 3D projections to immersive video conferencing, augmented reality and “mixed reality” displays and interfaces. And these won’t be limited to TV and games - they will also be used for medical treatment, safety, and security. That in turn means that more and more mobile apps and services will government-related, including e-government, smart cities, public protection and disaster relief communication, education, healthcare, etc.

And all of this will require support for extremely accurate positioning as new location-based services emerge for things ranging from emergency rescue services to drones.